21 Jump Street
Director : Phil Lord & Chris Miller
Screenplay : Michael Bacall (story by Michael Bacall & Jonah Hill; based on the television series created by Patrick Hasburgh & Stephen J. Cannell)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Jonah Hill (Schmidt), Channing Tatum (Jenko), Brie Larson (Molly Tracey), Dave Franco (Eric Molson), Rob Riggle (Mr. Walters), DeRay Davis (Domingo), Ice Cube (Captain Dickson), Dax Flame (Zack), Chris Parnell (Mr. Gordon), Ellie Kemper (Ms. Griggs), Jake M. Johnson (Principal Dadier), Nick Offerman (Deputy Chief Hardy), Holly Robinson Peete (Officer Judy Hoffs)
The artistic bankruptcy of mining old television shows for big-budget movies is so firmly entrenched at this point that one of the best jokes in 21 Jump Street—yes, another movie mined from an old television show—directly references it. “We’re reviving a cancelled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times,” Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) tells the misfit main characters, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum). “The people in charge have run out of ideas.” Indeed, they have, as even the idea of turning a decades-old television crime drama into a self-consciously wink-wink parody of itself was already done almost a decade ago with Starsky & Hutch (2004). But, no matter. If it worked (or almost worked) once, the studios will try anything again.
And so we have 21 Jump Street, which is based on the Fox series of the same name that ran from 1987 to 1991 and is now best known as the launching pad for Johnny Depp, who spent his early film career purposefully choosing oddball roles in films like Cry-Baby (1990), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and Benny & Joon (1993) to distance himself from the teen pin-up idol the industry was trying to turn him into. Outside of the title and the premise (which involves young police officers going undercover in high school to ferret out drug rings and the like), the film version has nothing in common with the series, which was the startup Fox Network’s unashamed bid to draw in the youth demographic. Interestingly, 21 Jump Street does the same thing, but instead of pandering to adolescents’ desire to see more attractive versions of themselves on screen, the movie panders to their desire to see even more adolescent versions of themselves on screen.
The story begins in 2005, when Schmidt is a dorky high school student rocking a mouthful of braces and a bad Eminem wannabe haircut and Jenko is a hulking jock bully who makes Schmidt’s life miserable. Fast-forward seven years and they meet again at the police academy, where Jenko the jock excels in all things physical while failing every exam (he can’t even memorize his Miranda Rights), while Schmidt does the opposite. They realize that they make the perfect pair—each fills in the other’s gaps—and end up becoming best friends, although they’re still a disaster as police officers because Jenko is still a dim bulb and Schmidt has no self-confidence. After they botch a drug bust (those pesky Miranda Rights again!), they are sent down to the 21 Jump Street program, which is run by the self-professed angry black Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). They are given new identities and told to infiltrate a local high school in order to find the supplier of a new kind of designer drug (the running joke that they are supposed to be brothers is almost as good as the running joke that they look anywhere close to high school age).
The twist is that high school culture has changed dramatically in seven years, and Jenko’s tough-guy bully tactics and lack of care for anything or anyone doesn’t fly anymore, while Schmidt’s sensitivity gets him in with the popular crowd, which values environmentalism, tolerance, and other forms of social hipsterism much more than gas-guzzling muscle machines and beating up on the weak. The popular crowd is led by Eric Molson (Dave Franco, younger brother of actor James Franco), a liberal rich kid who is supplying the school with drugs. Schmidt becomes his new best friend, although he feels most drawn to Molly (Brie Larson), a drama girl in the cool crowd who is like an amalgam of all the pretty high schoolers who rejected Schmidt back in the day. Meanwhile, Jenko finds himself stuck in Advanced Placement Chemistry (he pronounces the acronym AP as if it were a single word), where he not only discovers that nerds are people, too, but that learning can be fun and useful.
With the plot pieces in place, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who previously helmed the computer animated comedy Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) guide 21 Jump Street through all the high and low points you would expect from a comedy that purposefully plays it dumb. Screenwriter Michael Bacall (working from a story he concocted with Jonah Hill) mixes requisite teen movie scenes with requisite action movie scenes and manages to make quite a few of them work (Bacall also wrote the found-footage teen party movie Project X). Much of the movie is completely predictable, especially the bromance between its odd-couple protagonists, which runs aground on the rocky shores of disparate social status, not to mention Schmidt’s understandable selfishness in his newfound popularity. However, other scenes have a nice zip to them, and there are a few amusing surprises, such as a high-speed chase scene in which things that should blow up don’t. Hill and Tatum, with their physical and interpersonal discrepancies, have a strong comedic chemistry. Tatum in particular displays a previously unimagined sense of comic timing, which is almost enough to forgive all his macho posturing in lunkheaded action movies like Fighting (2009) and G.I. Joe (2009). 21 Jump Street is by no means a great comedy, but it does demonstrate that playing against the grain can be a good move, especially when the people in charge have run out of ideas.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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